Writing only about the cruise would not do service to the entire experience of dealing with YourCubaCruise and the Louis Cristal, so this review will address our experience from the day we decided to book the cruise.
YourCubaCruise (YCC) - If you are reading this review, you already probably know how to find YCC on the web. The website is relatively straightforward, and pretty typical of cruise line websites, so no problem there. Booking on the web was easy and painless, and that is the last time I intend to use that word in this review. From there on, it got more and more complicated. We booked on-line, a January, 2015 cruise in July, 2014, and then recruited my brother-in-law and his wife to join us. Being naturally suspicious of the security of on-line booking sites, my brother-in-law called YCC to book a cabin, only to be informed that it was not possible to book by phone. Really? Since when does a world class cruise company not have the ability to charge your credit card over the phone? More on this below. It took quite a bit for my brother-in-law to calm down, bite the bullet, and book their cruise on-line; but he did, and so far, no big problem.
So now we have 5 months until our next interactions with YCC. Once you’ve paid the full amount of the cruise, YCC emails you their “Predeparture Information” brochure. Read it carefully, because it is chock full of important information, some of which is misleading at best! Perhaps the most important piece of information regards Cuban medical insurance. YCC advises that “Cuban law requires all passengers to have medical coverage while travelling, and must be able to provide proof of coverage.” When we inquired about this from YCC, we were informed that only special Cuban medical insurance was acceptable to meet this requirement. We bought the insurance (approximately $100 for the two of us, and more on this nightmare later), but no one ever asked for it, and when we inquired about the need for it on the ship, we were told there is no requirement for it. Now it’s possible that the ship’s information was incorrect, but future YCC customers are advised to explore this issue carefully. For those embarking in Jamaica (MoBay) YCC did recommend buying the insurance through Caribic Vacations L.T.D. (CV). When I contacted CV in September, I was informed that CV would be in touch with me 2 weeks before our embarkation date. DO NOT BELIEVE THEM IF THEY TELL YOU THIS! CV did not contact me, but they did respond quickly by email when I inquired as to what was happening. They will send you a credit card authorization form, and will very quickly charge your credit card, and that is the last time you will hear me use the word “quickly” in reference to CV. We kept emailing and calling them up until the day of our departure for MoBay, and kept getting promises that we would have the insurance paperwork by the end of the day. Which day was never specified! We left for MoBay with only a hope and a prayer. Eventually, CV delivered the insurance docs to our hotel, late the afternoon of our arrival. What would have happened if we had not planned to spend a night in MoBay is not clear to me. If you plan to buy Cuban medical insurance from CV, make sure you give them a lot longer than 2 weeks to get it for you, and then pray a lot! YCC advises that you could be charged $27USD for airport departure taxes. Our airline said they did not include these taxes in the cost of the ticket, but we were never charged. YCC advised us that we should book our excursions no later than 48hrs prior to embarkation, because they could not guarantee that there would be availability for our preferred excursions once we got on board. There was never any danger of being shut out of an excursion on our cruise; in fact, the excursion staff had to work hard to sell some of the excursions we had pre-booked with YCC. Now, when we called YCC to book the excursions (several days before our embarkation), we were first told that it was too late, then “oops, it’s still OK”; and we paid by credit card over the phone. What happened to no charging credit cards over the phone? When my brother-in-law called later that same day, he was told he could not charge over the phone, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to book excursions on-line. Eventually he was allowed to charge over the phone, but he had to speak with a different YCC rep! Once we got on the ship, however, the excursion staff had NO record of our having purchased any excursions. Had we forgotten to bring our e-Ticket, I have no idea what hell we would have had to endure.
Louis Cristal (LC) – Embarkation was painless (oops, I guess I used that word again after all) and efficient. Having had to stand in line for hours on other cruise lines, this was a pleasant surprise! We boarded at about 12:30pm, and our cabins were ready, another pleasant surprise! Then, our luggage was delivered within a few minutes of our getting to our cabins! Wow, three pleasant surprises in a row, this was shaping up to be a great cruise ship! Lunch in the cafeteria was less of a pleasant surprise. The offerings are limited, and the food was either lukewarm or cold. The cafeteria itself is rather small for a ship of this size, but there are plenty of tables available around the pool. As is common with cruise lines, the only “free” beverages available at lunch or dinner are water, coffee and tea. The only water source, however, was a very feeble machine, which dribbled water slowly. As for coffee, there were two coffee dispensing machines, but one of them was constantly out of order, causing logjams at the end of the buffet. So lunch was a bit of a downer, and never really got any better throughout the cruise. After lunch my brother-in-law and I went down to the front desk to arrange to rent the safe in our cabins. We were given magnetic keys with the cabin number very plainly printed on them. The safes are really easy to use! You don’t have to come up with a clever PIN, just hold the little magnet on the door of the safe. In fact, the keys are so clever that they are interchangeable! I couldn’t figure out how they could be programmed for each safe, given that there appeared to be no chip or transponder on the key. So I tested my key on my brother-in-law’s safe, and was not so pleasantly surprised to find that it open their safe just as easily as ours! Be careful!
Dinner on the LC was at the same level as lunch. The food was never hot, but it was tasty, most of the time. I would rate the LC’s food a couple of notches lower than a cruise line such as Royal Caribbean. Service was generally good, although one evening the team of waiters assigned to our table were abysmal; getting orders screwed up, forgetting to bring salad dressings and water refills and taking a very long time to bring courses.
For entertainment, the LC had basically one show, a cirque du soleil knock-off that was repackaged every evening. When we were in Havana, however, there was a local group that was brought on board to do a Cuban musical show, but we had booked a trip to a local club so we did not see the LC’s show, but we heard it was good. Every other line I have ever cruised on has had a variety of entertainers, e.g., dancers, singers, magicians, comedians and jugglers (or some combination). Not on the LC. Except for the local troupe, you basically had the same thing over and over. We quit going to their show after the 2nd night. The band, however, was a great Afro-Cuban group that could groove!
Our cabin was OK, a bit smaller than the outside cabins I have had on RCI, Norwegian or Celebrity, but sufficient for 2 persons. There was sufficient closet and storage space, although the desk was so small it was essentially useless except to pile stuff on. There is a small refrigerator, but no bar in the room, and we were never given ice. Having our cabin steward deliver some ice would have been lovely, but then we hardly ever saw our cabin steward. On other cruises our stewards ALWAYS made a point of getting to know us. In fact, we met my brother-in-law’s cabin steward, and saw her many times during the cruise, but only briefly met ours, ONCE. There goes that extra tip?!? Despite or steward’s lack of presence (and ice), the room was kept nice, and clean, with fresh towels each day and the room freshened at appropriate intervals. I read a blog about this cruise that complained there was no place to store suitcases, but we found it easy to slip them under our beds. The only real complaint about our cabin (except for the lack of ice, did I mention that yet?) was that the air temp seemed to have no logic to it. During the day it seemed the cabin was always too warm, and too cold during the nights. I tried to adjust the thermostat at various times, but that seemed to have no effect.
Breakfast was what you’d expect if you read my earlier comments about the food, cold breakfast meats, watery oatmeal, greasy pre-fried eggs, a limited selection of breads and long lines at the solitary coffee machine and dribbly juice dispenser (although waiters did circulate with pitchers of juice). There was an omelet station in the pool area, but there was only a single station with only one pan going at a time, so the lines were long and the omelets were made from pre-processed omelet mix, and consequently less than stellar in quality. One thing was bothersome about mornings on the LC. We are early risers, and all other cruise ships we’ve been on either had a coffee pot in the cabin, or 24/7 coffee in the cafeteria for the early birds and insomniacs. Not so on the LC. Coffee was available at 6:30am, and not a minute earlier. When I inquired about coffee prior to 6:30, I was told it is available from room service, for a charge.
Excursions. As mentioned earlier, there was little or no communication between the ship’s excursion staff and YCC home office. They were very friendly, and tried to be helpful, but we often received contradictory information from different staff members. The excursions were well run, however. One of our excursions was cancelled due to lack of interest, and the staff switched us to an alternate and only charged us for the difference in price. The cruise itself wasn’t fully booked, so organizing excursion departures wasn’t the usual cattle call we have experienced on larger ships. One interesting aspect of this cruise was that teams of Cuban doctors took the temperature of each passenger leaving the ship, but only in the city ports. In Punta Frances and Antilla they did not. This really did not slow down the process of leaving the ship as they used modern temperature monitoring equipment that took only a few seconds for each passenger. Cuban immigration was totally painless and professional. The immigration staff were friendly and did not stamp visitors passports, no matter what their nationality. We took city tours in Havana and Santiago. The buses were modern and the guides were fluent in English and very informative and helpful. We also took the Biran and Alcala tour in Antilla. Very interesting and well organized. Lunch on this tour was chicken, so if you have any objections to fowl, be forewarned. We also did the Buena Vista Social Club tour in Havana, which was a lot of fun and included several rum drinks in the price. In Cienfuegos we decided to be on our own and hired a cab to take us to the center for $5CUC (for 4 persons). We also had lunch on our own at the Paladar Aché, a wonderful private restaurant a bit off the beaten track, not far from Cienfuegos’ MaleÄ‡on (check out its reviews on Trip Advisor). The food was excellent, the staff warm and attentive, and the prices VERY reasonable. We also went on our own in Santiago after our city tour. I don’t recommend the pedi-taxis because you will be charged more than a regular taxi, and they may run out of energy (as our drivers did) and leave you well short of your destination. In Santiago the streets are not well marked, and we found that the pedi-taxi drivers didn’t know the city very well. Ours tried to get us to agree to go to a closer restaurant than the one we were seeking, but that was after they had been driving us around for quite some time. Flag down a regular cab near the port, it will cost you about $5CUC to get to the city center from the port. Although we were dropped off several blocks from the restaurant we were seeking in Santiago, and had to walk through what tourists would consider poor neighborhoods, we never felt the least bit threatened.
The Casino. Is staffed by a bevy of beautiful and sexy women from Turkmenistan, wearing sexy dresses. They deal like wildfire, but are mostly sitting around bored because the casino was empty for most of the trip. In fact, I only saw 1 other person in the casino on the first day of our cruise, and not a single player again, although I admit that I was usually in bed by 10pm. The casino has several table games including blackjack, roulette and baccarat; but I never witnessed anyone playing anything other than blackjack, and that was the 1 person I saw. During our entire cruise not a single game of poker ever got fired up. The casino works on Euros, so unless you have a supply of them with you, you will have to charge your ship’s account to get an advance of cash in order to play, but that is done quickly by the casino’s manager.
The Duty Free Shop. It may be duty free, but it is no bargain. Prices for liquor, tobacco products and colognes were sky high.
Check-out/Disembarkation. Settle your bill before the day before disembarkation. I had a bunch of Euros I wanted to apply to my bill, and approached the reception desk the afternoon prior to our disembarkation, only to be told that my credit card had already been charged. After some discussion, I did get the staff to apply a credit to my credit card account, but it was annoying to have to deal with it in this fashion. Disembarkation is somewhat frustrating as well, in that guests are shooed out of their cabins at 7:30am. There is no sleeping in on disembarkation day. We then had to wait in the pool area until the ship was docked, which meant a couple hours of waiting around.
The Cuban People. The absolute highlight of the cruise were the Cuban people we encountered. Many of the LC’s crew are Cuban, and were warm and friendly, but of course they are paid to be. The people in the towns and cities were just as warm. Not all could speak English, but all were wonderfully friendly and helpful when we tried to speak with them. They are a beautiful, passionate and spirited people, and no trip to Cuba would be complete unless you stop to chat with some of them. The coolest thing was the local musicians who would fire up a tune when they saw us tourists walking by them. The second coolest thing was the Cuban’s fascination with ballpoint pens. Whenever I had one in my shirt pocket, someone would inevitably ask me if I would give it to them. Bring a supply with you and you’ll be in high demand!
Would I recommend this cruise? WITHOUT A DOUBT! Yes, we encountered a number of annoyances and frustrations in the organization of the cruise, and the LC is not a luxurious cruise ship (it was OK, clean, and met our needs), but luxury was not the point of this cruise. We wanted to see more of Cuba than the average tourist does, meet and interact with the Cuban people, see how they live, and learn more about the island and its culture. This cruise is an excellent way to accomplish those goals. With the USA’s recent relaxation of its rules for travel to Cuba, there will be more Americans travelling there in the near future. If this rapprochement results in additional investment in Cuba, things will begin to change, at least in the cities. Go now, before the inevitable changes happen. Just keep an open mind to some of the limitations that an experienced cruiser may feel are not up to the standards of other cruise lines. They are really minor, and knowing about them ahead of time may help you avoid some of them, or prepare yourself. You will not be disappointed in your visit to Cuba and its people!